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Why are human beings never content? No matter how much civilization advances, no matter how affluent and secure we become, no matter how much knowledge and opportunity we amass, it’s never enough. Why? Because we know there’s more to be had. We know it can be better. The very thing that enables us to conquer the natural world — imagination — also robs us of an animal’s simple focus.
Why are persons with extraordinary minds so often miserable when alone, even if they are genuinely joyful and amiable among others? Because they are forever taunted by their own vivid dreams and nightmares, by bold hopes, and by a thousand “What if…?” scenarios for every lost opportunity. Simply put, their appreciation of what is flounders beneath a relentless shadow of what could be.
Beethoven wrote in a letter:
The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague idea how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others perhaps may be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.
When we listen to a great composer’s music, we hear only what he has created; the manifest reality. We might not feel, as he does, that something still isn’t right; that something about it is never quite right. The composer might not even know himself exactly what it is that fails to match his barely conscious idea. And how much greater that frustration becomes when one must rely on other musicians to voice the nuances of one’s own passions! So it must be for cinematic storytellers.
Actors must experience something similar to the uncomfortable impression of hearing one’s own voice in a recording or seeing oneself in a homemade family movie. I suspect that many of the best actors are hyper-attentive to every utterance and movement, and hypercritical while watching themselves on screen. Perhaps that torture is why a few have claimed to never watch the films in which they perform.
Whenever I watch the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, I am struck by an exchange between Brad Pitt’s character, Rusty, and Linus, played by Matt Damon:
Rusty: “Are you scared?”
Linus: “Are you suicidal?”
Rusty: “Only in the morning.”
Though perhaps this insight is Pitt’s own, I would guess that it came from one of the scriptwriters. For depressed persons, the first and last moments of each day can be the most difficult, particularly for those who sleep alone.
In the morning, one often awakes from dreams. Those dreams might contain wishes or terrors, but either can be exaggerated in the waking mind by an artist’s inclination toward the dramatic. Any good storyteller develops the habit by telling stories to himself. A story connects objects and events by imbuing them with meaning. The artist dreams and then connects the dream, interpreting it, sometimes in a self-abusive way.
In the night, it is natural for any person to reflect on recent events and make predictions about the following day. A depressed artist might torture herself with reimagined memories, lusting after what might have been in fine detail. When she reflects on her life, she might draw sweeping story arcs that tell a fatalistic tale of tragedy, whereas another person might simply and doggedly hope for better days.
Happiness, sadness, and anger are greatly affected expectations and interpretations. Place 10 people in the same situation and they are likely to respond in as many different ways… some more dramatically than others. For a person whose livelihood depends on the appreciation of drama, a person who self-identifies primarily as a dreamer or an instrument of the artistic passions, ordinary experiences are often instilled with extraordinary significance.
Each of us has a story in his or her head that selects what character traits, what potentials, and what experiences are most significant. We qualify our lives according to what we imagine they could and should be. For some, life is a practical business. For others, it is a beautiful but terrifying drama.